Matcha Sencha

There’s definitely a muted and natural sweet quality to Matcha Sencha, along with the subtler tastes of moss, broth and kelp, which is a combination of raw green sencha and matcha powder. The green from the maccha instantly colors the tea, which may be the only tea I have had in the teahouse that is actually a green liquid. I had been saving this for last, since it was the most caffeinated of the green teas, with the exception of Hokuru, and I wanted to save it for the end. I don’t really know why. I think it may be because of its high caffeine content that it would be different from the other teas, and it was. Maccha is a tea used in Japanese tea ceremonies, where the powder is mixed with a whisk ceremonially to suggest a harmony with the universe. That is a simplification, but I could go on about the tea ceremony, how it developed from monks to samurais, daimyos and politics. It has books in its own right.

I have had raw matcha tea before, and it did not taste half as good as this tea, where it is tempered with the raw sencha to create something that is its own. The teahouse gave me instruction in the proper times and infusions, and I told them that I had been reading about maccha and the tea ceremony in Japan. I related to them that I had read that in the tea ceremony, the tea is prepared by a tea master for the participants. I asked if the intention of the teahouse was to make us all individual tea masters. They said directly, and without hesitation, “Yes.”. I then learned about the approach and ethos of the shop. The teashop may be the only place that sets a precedence where the teahouse visitor becomes their own tea master, and measures and performs infusions and water boils at the same time.

At the teahouse, you are brought a small kettle, a cup, and a strainer. At each seat is a hot pad for boiling tea. When you measure the correct temperature, you remove the teapot from the burner, and make the infusion into the kettle and strainer. The teashop supplies all of the tools, and the tea. You perform every other action. They said they are taking a huge risk by letting people perform this on their own. It’s almost like the preparation rules set up perfectly and alertness and mindfulness for the later stages of the actual meditation on tea and sensation. And that is an interesting point.

In one of my classes there was a student who made a game for talking about death. In the game, a complex series of actions interacting with cards takes place to choose a question. In critique, we played the game, and no one liked the game part, because it was confusing, but everyone liked the design and the questions. As a group, we sat on the floor, and discussed our feelings about death and dying. It was one of the most interesting projects of the semester. I know that game design is difficult, but this intitial exploration by the student filled the same kind of role that the organized simple action of choosing boiling times and infusion strategies does to create an incredible calming effect. The work of the teahouse rules, in the same way as the game, are the means at arriving at the point of perception. I asked if this was specifically to encourage mindfulness, and the teashop said, again, without hesitation, “Yes. Don’t take it for granted.” I won’t.

The teashop then told me a story about an 80 year old man that they met at the Zen Center in San Francisco. He was sweeping up leaves. She approached him and asked him what made him want to come to the Zen. He replied that he lived in the neighborhood, and the center had a really good bakery. That’s why. In the same way, this exploration of tea, just in caring about making it and mindfully enjoying it, was Zen.

Moroccan Mint and Pomegranate Green

I saved these two teas to try as a taste test, since from my reading, I really didn’t respond to the notes that marked both teas as having a candy quality. That’s just not my preference. These are both from Germany, and the teashop said that most of the artificial tasting tea comes from Germany, because it is an advanced technological culture, and other cultures, especially in China and Japan, use more natural ingredients because that is essentially what they have to work with. I can’t help but think it’s something more than that. Over the past two weeks I have had so many experiences with tea, and I think the Jasmines are a perfect encapsulation that to get a sweet quality you don’t have to artificially flavor something. Maybe technology is too easy to lean on, or become enamored with.

I didn’t spend much time with these teas, as their descriptions leave nothing to the imagination, but it is interesting to note that the flavor reminded me of a Victorian robot gathering, a combination of embroidery, lace and metal, sitting in a sunlit room, with light reflecting off of its body. Pomegranate green could be permeating the room with its strict forcefulness, while Moroccan mint could be in the cups they drank. It could be the sensation of a post human world. The other teas I tried pushes against this idea, with the suggestion that a tempered vision of the past and present could be the most healing thing we can engage with.

What have we lost with the tastes of these teas? Neither are subtle, like the other teas which have a definite pattern of growth and change as the arc of their experience changes as you engage with it. Each small cup, each infusion, is different with the natural teas. It is more reflective of our organic world, and it can connect us to the passing of time, and the beauty of our lived experience.

Cloud Mist

I think this may be a common green tea I have had often. It reminds me of my first green tea experiences, but this is definitely the best version I’ve ever had. It might not be, but it has a sense of familiarity to it. This would likely be a perfect green tea to begin an exploration. From Li River, Songyang, Zhejiang, this is a daily green tea first nourished in Spring rain. There is a combination of a cream sensation with a slight, almost unnoticeable sweetness to it. It might be a small encyclopedia of all green tea, with a hint of vegetal, soft sweetness, and a tinge of bitterness to it. I could really use a tea like this in the morning, and it might be a mainstay goto morning green tea. Maybe I could combine it with another tea to even increase the energy of the tea. I could definitely see this becoming a daily tea experience.

The soft bitterness is really important. At first I thought I had made it too strong, but I measured the infusions exactly in time and temperature, so I can only think that this is the quality of the tea itself. That’s one of the things that make this tea so amazing. Though sweet at times, it feels like a tea that could immediately be used to focus your attention and energy. That’s the only thing I felt was lacking in the rest of the green teas I have been discovering. The focus I thought I lost in coffee was immediately restored once I had this tea. While Hojicha simulated the feeling of coffee, this one feels like its effect. It is simultaneously muted, yet forceful, like many coffee experiences. I have to admit, I kind of love this tea.

How many mornings could I begin to work hard in after I had this tea? Probably many. It’s not relaxing me at all. It renders my emotions steady, with a focus on writing this entry. Tea can do so much more than just simply relaxing us. It has so many varieties that can use at different times to focus our energy and alter our mental state. Tea is unlike anything I haven egaged with before.

And still, I can’t think of a more peaceful thing to get into than tea. It’s endless, and from the tea I’m trying, inexpensive yet rare. I am so grateful for being so close to a great teahouse. I am really now part of the tea community there. The staff and I get so excited about tea, and they recognize that I’m approaching this in a very unusual way. And the fact that we’re all being mindful is exactly what I was looking for when I thought I needed a meditation community. Tea has all the elements of what I focus on in my art and design practice: it can help with anxiety, shared with friends and family, and more than any of these things individually, serve as a complex range of emotions that produce effects particular to each tea, and to each person.

I know it’s called Cloud Mist, but to me, this could be described as Mountain Cloud, because it is so dense, and would be a perfect way to start a hike up a mountain, focusing energy and harnessing passion is an immediate appeal to our logical and physical faculties.

Yunnan Mao Feng

Leaves from the Yunnan province in a Mao Feng style. Mao Feng, in Chinese, means “downy tip,” meaning that the bud is young and covered with white like a bird. This taste, a combination of bean, bitter melon, and gardenia, creates a creamy sensation, with a definite edge at the end. Much like Dragon Well, this again is a winged creature, but much more delicate. While the name of the tea suggests a small bird, the taste is smooth and thoughtful, with a slight bitterness to it. There is definitely a sharp end later in the path of its motion within the body.

If this could be thought of as a bird, it is a mountain bird, fully grown, sitting on a rock in a high mountain and remembering its childhood. Yet those memories may be inflected with the life the bird has understood through its experiences. Long soaring through the air, it’s migration paths from season to season, perhaps a disappearing landscape. The bird can speak, but we will never understand it’s language. What stories could it tell if we could understand?

In reply, the tea suggests that the memories of the bird are sweet and poignant, yet with an essence of bitterness. Life has not always been easy for the bird. It has seen homes destroyed, grown hungry in the winter, and become aware of the subtleness of its own life, as it remembers it’s first migrations, the passing of each year, and the world as it is, as it sits perched on the rock. It flies away through the canyons, letting out a cry, both beautiful and sad, with an enormous sun making reflections on a small river beneath it.

Silver Tip Jasmine

The last of the teas the teahouse said would blow my mind was Silver Tip Jasmine, which was fantastic. This may be my goto Tea when I’m not exploring. It has a stringent quality in it’s leaf form, and it feels like a direct taste jolt of Jasmine. I have had it before, but not at the teashop, and I think it’s readily available at many shops. It’s a lot like Pearl Jasmine, but Pearl Jasmine has a much softer quality, and this tea is more direct.

Because of the name I always imagined it as literally having a silver tip at the end, with a blend of metallic tastes that would become sharp. It, of course, does not, but the feeling of a directed force still remains, despite the way my imagination created the form in my mind.

There are so many strong terminologies we can use to imagine the reality of things that aren’t really there. I try to explore things like this in my writing, and I tend to think visually. But emotionally, this tea to me creates a sense of creative energy, yet is almost with precision, directed in an awakening quality within my mind, or whatever the mind is. I feel perhaps over analytical with this tea. It would be absolutely perfect for a directed task that requires alertness and precision. I could easily see this being a great tea to wake up with, or to get going on daily tasks with happiness and care. Is this the ultimate form of mindfulness? Being awake to all of our perceptions? If it is, this is a fantastic tea for engagement with our environment and our place within it.

Perhaps, in this context, Silver Tip Jasmine is like a smooth crystal, clear in essence. In fact the color of the tea in a cup is very transparent. Like a quartz crystal, perhaps with a pale silver at it’s base, with sharp forms in places, yet emphasizing a harmonic quality. By engaging with it, I’m focusing more, I am ready for the day in a way that I wouldn’t have been without it.

The teahouse was right. This tea is blowing my mind.

Dragon Blossom

Dragon blossom is a blend made in the teahouse from Dragon Well Green Tea, Chrysanthemum and Goji Berries from China. The instructions from the teahouse said to “breathe in the aroma of the tea before sipping in soundness of mind and comfort for body to bring peace to your soul.” I found that to be absolutely true, and the balance of the chrysanthemum with the green tea really does create something with a feeling of elevated herbal tea, which I have used often in the past for anxiety and calming. It may almost be too powerful of a taste, since it really is the dominant quality of the tea, but the addition of the other elements creates a more focused state. Usually, Chrysanthemum engages your whole body at once, absolutely creating a feeling of peace. The green tea addition though, makes it feel more direct and immediate. It’s a great blend.

It has a textured surface of light yellow and green and red in its substance, and in the overall feeling of a yellow green hue in the cup. I’m interested in what the color of the tea has to do with the feeling of peace. It doesn’t feel severe, and the interaction of the colors reminds me of potpourri dishes on tables that my Mom might make for the holidays, with a definite sense of home. While the shop did not intend me to think of potpourri or suburban craft stores, its color scheme created that sense to me. Large suburban craft stores are so strange. Sometimes, they are one of the only places you can get plastic fruit, a strange object in the Anthroposcene.I remember buying my first paint there.

Color is perhaps one of our strongest identifiers. The work of some of the great artists all present a more coherent color scheme. Monet and pastel coloration are immediately identifiable as he builds beautiful forms of the natural and physical effects of the world. El Greco has a dominance of pure red and earth tones in his work while describing spiritual passages that transcend in an indescribable way. The Dutch masters create light from deeply shadowy forms in sienna and raw umber.

If this tea were a dragon, it would be a white dragon made of clouds, that would curl around you in a deep slumber, carrying the atmosphere into your body, and relaxing all of your senses, until you are relaxed, calm and peaceful. I have to say, after having a day of low caffeine green tea, and specifically in Dragon Blossom, I slept really well at the end of the day. It is an incredibly relaxing blend.

Jasmine Brocade

Yesterday, I asked the teashop for Pearl Jasmine, and the teashop said, essentially, you’ve been doing that for too long. They said, let us blow your mind. I consented to this prospective mind blowing. What did they have? What could they be hiding? They had an enormous back room. I expected they could lead out an alpaca from the back into the shop or reveal to me that they were all part of a secret society that specialized in transcendental tea. That last possibility could probably be said of all tea shops. They brought me two canisters: black, matte finishes with the unmistakable packaging, and presented them. They were both Jasmine Green Teas: Silver Tip Jasmine and Jasmine Brocade. They specifically noted the last one, which they said turned into a flower, slowly, as you added water. I was amazed. I was leaving, and I made a plan to finish discovering these teas the following day.

I first tried Jasmine Brocade. It was something I had been preparing for for some time. I had heard of a flowering tea for a year. I expected that it would turn into a perfect lotus when my cup was filled with water. It actually resembled a strawberry, with the petals of the flower falling to the side. I was given another bud to get a different effect, but the general impression was made on me. It reminded me of an underwater firework, almost a novelty that distracted and colored my experience of the tea, and that was what was really interesting to me.

Each steeping of this particular tea created a slow rise of taste strength over a period of infusions, peaking at about four infusions, and then slightly decreasing in the later ones. It was something that was hard to consider. I was so impacted by the color of the bulb that I sensed that I tasted something like a raspberry, but the last really wasn’t there when I thought about it. The color and shape of the flower completely changed the sensation of the tea.

Color can alter our entire perception. I made sure to close the lid after the infusions, and on these infusions I really could taste it for the first time. It definitely had a sweetness to it, but the notes of the teashop said there would also be a sensation of sweet pea. That was definitely present, and made the rest of the tea make sense. The pear sensation, mitigated by a sense of the vegetal qualities, made for an interesting tea. It was a perfect combination of these two qualities that slowly interweaved to choose a dominant flavor. It was a pitched battle. Pear absolutely won out. The taste is a round bubble, light and made of air with the exception of a thin surface, like a sheet of invisible glass, with only reflections describing its dimensions.

Even though flowering teas are common, it was the first one I ever had, and I approached it with awe. It felt really special, but when I tried it out, it felt really ordinary. I wonder if there is a way to preserve our feelings of wonder for the natural world when we see something every day. I left the teashop for a bit and saw so many scenes of flowers, growing in the wild urban environment, and coloring the yards of the 1950s houses of West Berkeley. We see flowers like this every day. Does it matter? Could I approach every flower I see on my way home and treat it with awe and reverence? I hope so. Even these simple gestures of care for a garden or flower are a powerful way people interact with their environments. Even in our urban space, we have cactuses that we love with small flowers. Are they no less special because they are not in a cup?

Hojicha

Hojicha is such a warm and inviting tea. I should note that for the first time since I’ve been coming to the tea shop, it was packed and there were no thermometers available for gauging the heat, which I’ve noted before was so vital for making tea in a mindful way. But was it over scientific? In my readings, an example of an early tea manuscript described the different stages of the heat of the water by surface characteristics: waiting until it is in a displaced motion of waves, and not gauging it through modern devices. It’s possible, and maybe the real connection of making tea would be more like this: a union of visual cues and the natural state of water as it changes.

Hojicha has a definite charcoal flavor. It feels carefully roasted, with a nutty aftertaste, and a beginning taste phase which really feels like one of the most heartwarming green teas I can imagine. I imagine it’s color as brown and black, and in the notes for the tea at the tea shop they mention that it is a “satisfying replacement for a morning cup of coffee.” That is absolutely believable. It’s a green tea that feels both like a green tea, and with a taste of coffee. You can feel the taste of walnut very strongly. While other green teas suggest the waves of wind through grasslands; of a series of smooth motions over the surface, with a definite vegetal glow, Hojicha is the taste of the wood, the trunk of the tree, the soil and shafts. It is like being in a dense forest with high trees and focused canopies. The green tea reminder of the taste yields the sensation of seaweed, washed upon a wooded shore. I can feel this will be a tea I return to often when I want to experience those particular effects.

Both coffee and tea were, at the beginning of the first millenium, used for religious purposes. Coffee came from Sufi mystics, and tea was developed by the monastic community. It’s an inspiring thought, but I’m not sure that it’s all that remarkable. Probably monks and seekers were the only equivalents to researchers and scientists at that time.

If this observation emphasizes the delicate nature of thoughtful investigation, the reality of Hojicha is more a forceful state of nature itself. It presents itself clear of metaphors. It is assertive. It is the natural world in one of it’s most solid forms, the root and trunk of an endless series of trees, through which we open upon on a clearing, and rest as light breaks through the high canopy of the leaves. Yet because of the late effects of the familiar green tea, it almost feels like this forest could be among the coral reefs, or deep in the ocean.

I have a very clear memory of being with some friends in a redwood clearing, with bark covering the soil underneath them. I don’t remember who did it first, but we all laid down and looked up toward the sky. That is the same effect as the tea. I felt so warm and happy after trying it. I asked the tea shop why this was, to which they replied, “maybe a placebo?” I think it’s more than that. Tea is more than its parts. It is a truly amazing thing, and I can’t wait to explore more.

Kagoshima Sencha

I learned a lot this morning. I was brewing tea absent mindedly, looking at the computer while I was brewing Kagoshima Sencha, a famous Japanese Green Tea, raised in accordance with a Kyoto tradition. The book at the tea shop offered the instructions to “Enjoy daily as a ritual refresher, or bond with other humans through shared experience of stability and calm.” However, under distraction I destroyed the tea. It was a reminder that I should be more mindful. The mindful aspect of tea extends not only to the experience of drinking it, but also in the way it is steeped and brewed.

I made the first infusion at 180 degrees, and according to the tea shop it should have been at a low temperature, between 140 and 160. It was beginning to remind me of analog photography processing, which I did as a requirement for the photography department at SFAI. In analog photography development, you enter a darkroom, and under red light, very dim, you make out the forms of a dial for exposure times, to which light will be made on the photo paper in a liquid bath. You then develop it, and the process starts to be this intricate series of steps of experiment and revision as you slowly find the subtleness of the light and contrast. Whether dark or light, the process is both scientific and poetic, an elaboration of care and resulting effects. It is so different from the modern process of instagram. It was beautiful.

Tea is like that, and I learned from the tea shop that any colder brew of any tea results in a sweeter taste, and that the stronger and hotter the brew, the tea can become destroyed and become bitter. You can even cold brew tea at a period of 8 hours with more tea leaves in the infusion. My mistake brew yielded a tea that was bitter, with a strange sweet sensation toward the end of the arc of infusion. The tea shop said that they would replace the tea again, so they could do a proper infusion, and when I did that it really opened up the tea. The bitterness had faded, and instead the image of a rolling series of smooth, green hillsides, with wind slowly passing through the leaves came before me as I began to experience the tea. There is definitely a smooth texture, described by the shop as creamy, but it felt more like the general grassy flavor of green tea which I am starting to sense. It was complex and changed as the temperature became colder as I wrote this.

The analog process of art making is still something I remember from long ago. We didn’t have social media or digital photography. I remember getting my first digital camera, very rudimentary, in Texas for a design assignment, and that was, at the time, one of the first low cost models of this kind of camera. Analog development labs are still available at many camera stores, and there is one in Berkeley that has rentals available, so I could keep up with it, but I don’t. I have changed my process in art making. I primarily sketch through a digital tablet, I engage with photography with a digital camera.

But slowing down, which is what I did while I was in art school, is important, and the difference between that process and the more modern processes of my craft is something I just didn’t think about cohesively until this morning. My work flowed, in school, directly into analog making. Even at CCA, I made physical books and worked with paper. It was only in a few classes that I approached making with electronics and digital media.

Making tea, and experiencing it, has changed my life. It has made me focus on the present moment in ways that I would not have had otherwise. The tea shop confirmed my experience with the tea. The tea shop told me this morning that they actually emphasize mindfulness to their visitors. It is the profound experience of this environment. It’s really low key and simple. It looks as though the tables have been here for twenty years, and they have been. It is truly an extension of the West Berkeley aesthetic: urban, yet peaceful. Tranquil, where what is so delicately profound is the experience of peace, which is what being mindful of tea brings. 

Emperor’s Cloud: The Origin of Tea and Modernity

From my readings, tea is estimated by legend to be 5,000 years old, but scientists estimate it is 500,000 years old. What’s really fascinating is that the modern tea, the kind I search for, has been around a much shorter amount of time. Raw tea leaves, used in the distant past, were raw and bitter tasting. So what we’re doing when we appreciate tea is actually a modern tradition, yet definitely connected to our entire species history. It’s incredible.

Tea was discovered in China, at least by the modern record of it, and it is attributed in legend both to a healer, and to a medicine god. Legends are powerful psychological ways of describing phenomena, and this myth elevates tea into a mystical status that is an amazing way to use the imagination when you are drinking tea.

And that is what this blog is about. There are many ways and resources already available that describe taste, origin and history. I am reading two of these kinds of books right now. The pursuit of tea is something that can grip you hard, and it’s an incredible way to really get excited about something that connects you to your own experiences, the community of people excited about tea, a wider cultural context, histories, and myths. And here, I am using prose and poetry to describe my experiences with tea. I think that is the best thing I can offer to the conversation of tea. 

The tea I am having this morning isn’t really anything rare, and it is also incredible. It is Emperor’s Cloud Starbucks tea. I’m not proud of that lol, but it’s a great way to experience tea when you are traveling, or need a place to study early in the morning. 

The commercial description for Emperor’s Cloud is as follows:

“Praised as ‘green gold’ for centuries, this smooth green tea with a lingering aftertaste was a favorite amongst Chinese Emperors for many dynasties. One bud and two leaves are handpicked at 3,500 feet elevation where the tea trees are always shrouded in clouds and mist. This pure green tea makes an excellent cup anytime of the day.”

That also encapsulates an aspect of tea that I have been discussing in this post. When I was talking with one of the tea masters at the tea shop, he mentioned when he offered me Genmaicha that only emperors could actually afford pure tea in the distant past. What’s amazing about our modern tea is that technological advances have brought something that was so rare, into the lives of everyone. If we were born in an earlier time, we might never have been able to appreciate the endless beauty and peace of tea. It’s yet another example of modern technology democratizing experiences, and I am grateful for it.

All of my experiences with early morning tea when I am traveling, wether far or just in a morning commute have been from this specific tea. It is an experience completely unlike the simplicity and peace of having tea in your home, or having it in a tea shop, and even more removed, having it in a tea ceremony, which I would absolutely love to try. It’s actually a new life goal for me. But it is, like so many teas, deeply relaxing. So even when you have a busy morning, or are in stressful situations, tea can create an imaginary environment that connects you to your more peaceful experiences, and that is profound. 

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